Contemporary Art as Theophany

By Fr Ivan Moody on February 10, 2015
To-day in England we think as little of art as though we had been caught up from earth and set in some windy side street of the universe among the stars. Disgust at the daily deathbed which is Europe has made us hunger and thirst for the kindly ways of righteousness, and we want to save our souls. And the immediate result of this desire will probably be a devastating reaction towards conservatism of thought and intellectual stagnation. Not unnaturally we shall scuttle for safety towards militarism and orthodoxy.
—Rebecca West, “The Duty of Harsh Criticism,” in The New Republic, 7 November 1914, p.18.

I recently came upon these words by Rebecca West (words written just over a century ago, and which I really should have known before) at precisely the moment that I began to listen to James Dillon’s Stabat Mater dolorosa, given its first performance at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival in November 2014. James Dillon, a Scottish composer born in 1950, described his piece as a “Cubist Stabat Mater”, and it sets parts of the Latin hymn, and words by Julia Kristeva, Pablo Picasso, Rainer Maria Rilke and others. As Gavin Dixon wrote in a perceptive review of the work, “Dillon is too much the Modernist to take anything as canonical as a sacred text at face value, and must find a cultural framework to legitimise his engagement,”(1) noting too that such an approach initially suggests postmodernism rather than the “new complexity” to which Dillon’s music is usually assumed to belong.

And indeed, in that Dillon’s work is a Stabat Mater in inverted commas, so to speak, it is a work of postmodernism. It occurs to me to wonder whether Rebecca West would have considered this, the provocative nature of the juxtaposition of texts apart, as a “devastating reaction towards conservatism of thought and intellectual stagnation.” Dillon has, after all, homed in on the idea of the grieving Mother of God as a metaphor for all grieving women, in what is usually considered ritualistic fashion (the music is predominantly quiet and slow, and frequently very beautiful). Why not just use the texts by Picasso, Kristeva, et al. and create something unmoored from religious and liturgical tradition? Why choose a “canonical… sacred text” and then have to go to the trouble of legitimizing it?

Without presuming to respond for Dillon, who still has religious beliefs but is no longer a church goer (2), such an appropriation of the past, and of the culture of the past, clearly has an enormous resonance, and could not effectively be made without such resonance. But it is a brave path, in that it deals with what West called “the daily deathbed which is Europe” and simultaneously thirsts for “the kindly ways of righteousness”.

Can those of us who are active believers and also artists partake of such an experiment? Can we engage with the daily deathbed which is, in fact, the entire world, as we simultaneously seek nourishment from our lived faith? Can we transmit this by means of art? My answer to this question is absolutely affirmative; if I did not think this possible, I could not continue to do what I do, as composer and priest (two paths that cross each other with remarkable frequency). In addition, the research I have undertaken over the past few years, and that resulted in a recent book on the subject of modernism and Orthodox spirituality in music, has convinced me that there is not only room for such transmission, but that it is absolutely essential if we, as Orthodox, wish to engage with the world and not hide our light under a bushel.

I have, to be brutally honest, no time for the idea that we must wall ourselves off and live in a beautiful ghetto. That is not what Christianity is, and if that is the case, then Christian art must as a consequence be larger, wider, than the liturgical arts. It must be seen to reach out and engage the non-Orthodox, the pagan, the atheist, and to do so, while liturgical art must be the fons et origo of our work, there is not only no reason not to take the very foundations of Orthodox Christian belief into the “daily deathbed” which is the world, but there are the most compelling pastoral reasons to do exactly that.

St Ephrem the Syrian knew this, when he “baptized” pagan hymnology by means his own poetry. He did not “scuttle for safety towards militarism and orthodoxy”, but rather militarily engaged the unbelievers by means of Orthodoxy. While it would, perhaps, be difficult to find a similar situation in the modern world, what is certainly true is that there are opportunities for working in the space that exists between the church and the world, a space that one might call paraliturgical, where art that has no actual liturgical function but that draws upon the riches of liturgical hymnography and, more generally, spiritual poetry, may find a role, a role that may at least sometimes be described as evangelization.

Fr.Skliris Nymphios, Christ the Bridegroom

Fr.Skliris Nymphios, Christ the Bridegroom

If one looks at the work of George Kordis, or Fr Stamatios Skliris, both of whom are painters as well as active iconographers, one may see a visual analogue of this situation, but there are others, such as the Serbs Lazar Vozarević (1925-1968) and Kosta Bogdanović (1930-2012),(3) who made an earlier attempt, in difficult circumstances, to reconcile the heritage of Byzantium and the contemporary world.

Vozarevic Pieta

Lazar Vozarević, Pietà, 1956 (Belgrade Museum of Modern Art)


Kosta Bogdanović, Vizanteme

Composers who made similar attempts include the Greek Michael Adamis (1929-2013), the Bulgarian Ivan Spassov (1934-1996) and the Russian Edison Denisov (1929-1996), and Adamis is particularly interesting in that he was not only a pioneer of electronic music in Greece, having studied at Brandeis in the USA, but was also a distinguished musicologist working in the area of Byzantine chant. Younger composers, such as Calliope Tsoupaki (b.1963) and Djuro Živković (b.1975) are also finding that space, and projecting a remarkably intense spiritual engagement within a broadly modernist artistic context.(4) Such composers are not “scuttling” anywhere; they are engaging profoundly both with their time and with their own spiritual tradition, and, in contradistinction to the case of James Dillon, there are no inverted commas. Spiritual texts, spiritual references, mean what they have always meant, and are no need is felt to contextualize or legitimize.

George Kordis, Violin Player

George Kordis, Violin Player

This is spiritual power, for the artist who is a believer, canonical texts must not only be taken at face value, but provided with an exegesis. That exegesis is in turn a new enrichment, because it takes the Gospel into unfamiliar territory and, like the poetry of St Ephrem the Syrian, baptizes what was pagan: it can be a theophany, a manifestation of God. This is the “devastating reaction towards conservatism of thought and intellectual stagnation” that we need, and it requires a singular lack of fear.

3 See Ivan Moody, “Byzantine Discourses in Contemporary Serbian Music”, in Melita Milin, Jim Samson, eds., Serbian Music: Yugoslav Contexts, Belgrade: SASA 2014, 109-126

4 A very brief excerpt from Tsoupaki’s St Luke Passion, in which the distinguished Greek psaltis Ioannis Arvanitis played a highly significant role, may be heard here: A recording of the entire work is available on Etcetera KTC 1402. Živković’s On the Guarding of the Heart, inspired by the Philokalia, may be heard here:

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  1. Jonathan Pageau on February 10, 2015 at 6:46 am

    Fr. Ivan, thank you so much for this first article. I have to say that in reading your article I agree wholeheartedly with what you are saying. I agree that we must look to engage the world and not form an Orthodox ghetto. I have to admit that I do not understand music enough to be a good judge of its possibilities, but I know visual art and I am very surprised by the examples you give of what you are saying.

    I love the image of bringing “to the deathbed” of contemporary culture. For Baptism is ultimately a “putting to death”, as says St-Gregory of Nyssa comparing baptism to Moses crossing the red sea: « …after we have drowned the whole Egyptian person (that is every form of evil) in the saving baptism we emerge alone, dragging along nothing foreign in our subsequent life. » In that vein though its seems that when attempting to baptize modern and contemporary art, we must be astute to the languages they employ and the references they contain in order to “circumcise” them as they are being baptised.

    For example, in the image by Fr.Skliris Nymphios, the immediate references invoked by his painting are Dada and “bad painting” in the likes of Francis Picabia with shading in the style of Max Beckman. It is strange for example to notice how he painted the image of Christ on corrugated cardboard which affects the image, letting some of that cardboard show through the paint on the edges while smearing the lettering of his Name and badly drawing the circle of his Glory… All those references to “bad painting” are there in the image. The question is what does it mean to paint Christ like that with a reference to throw away materials and hasty paintbrush work? In the case of Dada and Cubism which used these techniques, the intent was clear: Destroy the hierarchy of visual and material order, subvert precious vs. common, beauty vs. ugly, artisan (well-made) vs. industrial. Is that what he is doing? If so, why? If not, then what is he doing?

    The same seems to go for the cubist deposition. What does it mean when lines are cut through human figures in non-descriptive ways, through bodies and faces, where colour breaks apart and does not follow the form of something? What is the difference between this deposition and the crucifixion by Graham Sutherland or for that matter the one by Francis Bacon? In what manner is this a baptism? I could say much more about the Bogdanović image as well.

    It seems to me when St-Ephraim the Syrian baptized Pagan poetry, he did so in a way that transfigured it and filled its forms with the symbolic patterns of Scripture itself, referring through the poetic languages and rhythms of the pagans to the rythms of the Christian web of analogies. He did not reproduce the jarring imagery of the Bacchae or the suggestive wordplay of Ovid’s Ars Amatoria. That is why I think you are on a much sounder note with Kordis. His work is far more anchored in a synthesis of the Old World both Christian and Pagan, attempting to look at how it connects to the post-modern world through color, lyricism and trying to examine how surrealism is akin to ancient notions of “personification” and liminal imagery of creatures like angels and mermaids.

  2. Fr Ivan Moody on February 10, 2015 at 8:24 am

    Jonathan, thank you for your comments.

    I am aware that this is “dangerous” ground, and I intended to be provocative here, precisely because I think this is something we need to think about within the context of Orthodox liturgical (and paraliturgical) arts.

    Firstly, I should say that I do not necessarily defend or even like some of the music or plastic art about which I write, but I do think it valuable in the search for a proper understanding of what we do, how we do it, and why we do it. In the case of the Nymphios by Fr Skliris, for example, while I take your point about “bad painting” completely, here I understand him to be transcending that area of art, and, in that sense, baptizing it. It’s a question of perspective in many ways: one can choose to see the corrugated cardboard or one can choose to see Christ (a very good metaphor for seeing Christ wherever we look, of course).

    I do not argue that this is an appropriate way always to paint icons, or to paint them for use in a church. I do argue that Fr Skliris has found, painted, written Christ in a place where one might not expect to find Him.

    As for the Serbian painters, they are working from the other side of the glass, as it were. They are trying to find the sacred within the vocabulary they have, which is, of course, not that of the tradition of iconography. And I should also make it clear that I am not positing those works as being icons.

    George Kordis has indeed achieved a synthesis; what I want to make clear is that with e Christ-centred view, that synthesis may *begin* from many different points. Whether it achieves its aim or not is, of course, another question.

    • Jonathan Pageau on February 11, 2015 at 11:02 pm

      Despite my comments, I think your point definitely comes across clearly and like I said, I agree with you wholeheartedly. But since it is a messy world we might have different perspectives on how discussions with modernism and post-modernism can come about. Aidan Hart speaks of “intimations” of the sacred in some of modernism, though he tends to favor Brancusi, Kandinski and other “spiritual” abstract work such as Mondrian and Rothko. I might be more conservative, but strangely enough I am more conservative partly because I come from contemporary art, having done the whole mixed-media post-modern painting thing when I took a studio after my studies… I do appreciate a few contemporary artists, like Anselm Kiefer who I believe has a kind of alchemical approach to history and art which might itself the “putting to death” that is baptism. But only the future will tell us what will emerge from the waters…

  3. Rev. Deacon Paul O. Iacono on February 10, 2015 at 11:34 am

    Fr. Moody, Thank you for your very insightful and thought provoking article. As an artist and a deacon in the Latin Rite I am aware that the lines for what is acceptable as liturgical art within my Rite have been virtually erased within the last sixty years. It is interesting to note that this development has not, in my opinion, enriched or enhanced our liturgical worship or prayer life. There is, however, disagreement within our Rite as to what constitutes proper liturgical art, settings, music, architecture, etc. This in turn has caused confusion and dissent. You have clergy and laity alike taking sides as to what is acceptable architecture (both exterior and interior), art, and music and whether or not it is conducive to prayer and liturgical worship.
    I mention this just to offer a note of caution; and also to express the fact that in reaction to the “experiments” of the last sixty years there is a growing number of young clergy within my Rite that are refreshed by the liturgical art prior to the 1450’s. So Modernism, while not dying, is at least suffering from a critical disease.
    I, too, am experimenting with technique and materials. I agree that some sacred artists are searching for a way of expressing the voice of Scriptural Tradition and the revelation of Christ and His Church to people who are in dire need of evangelization.
    The materials that an artist uses is irrelevant; it is whether or not the sacred image that is created sings the song of theological, artistic, and semantic “correctness.” As you and your readers know, in the past this “correctness” was based solely on Church tradition. In the 21st century I believe it will be based on Church tradition plus artistic innovation that speaks to the needs and touches the hearts, minds, and souls of our people.
    Do we not agree that sacred art’s main purpose is to prayerfully turn us back to God and the truth of HIs redemption of man? If a piece of “sacred art” doesn’t accomplish this fact then it becomes just another cultural artifact.
    In my particular case I paint sacred images in the iconographic tradition. I use this phrase “painting sacred images in the iconographic tradition” because I am intentionally not trying to paint sacred icons in the iconographic tradition of the Orthodox Church. That tradition is the specific “voice” of the Orthodox. It is not my role as a Latin Rite deacon to try to sing that particular song.
    Five out of my eight art teachers are of the Orthodox Rite. I have come away from that training with a specific perspective. Yet, while I am enriched by your Church Tradition and artistic perspective, I have the duty to “connect” with contemporary society, and my fellow Christians, by singing a song that resonates with them. It is my goal to evangelize the truth, goodness, and beauty of God through the prayerful creation of sacred art.
    You can see an example of one of my sacred images, Jesus Our Savior, in a recent post I made on my website:
    As it relates to the art that you presented, I find Lazar Vozarevics, 1956 Pieta, to be a profound work of contemporary spiritual art. My criteria for saying this is that I could easily pray with this piece of art.
    Fr. Nymphios’ and Professor Kordis’ work, while competent also raises the question in my mind of whether they were painted to promote prayer, to simply present Scriptural truth, or to, in Kordis’ case, to delight the eye, like Matisse, with the “dance” of the Sacred message. But, this is a very subjective issue. What is my prayerful image is another person’s dissonance.
    Thanks for providing a challenging article.

  4. Fr Ivan Moody on February 10, 2015 at 2:34 pm

    Father Deacon Paul,

    Thank you very much for this response, in which you articulate much of what I was aiming at in my article. One thing I would point out is that the painting by George Kordis reproduced is not intended to be an icon; it is, rather, a painting that evokes icons. He knows very well the difference between one thing and the other, but the fact that he is able to evoke a whole world of spiritual art (i.e., that of icon painting) in his “secular” work is precisely relevant to what I was discussing, as I see you understand very well.

    I wonder if, with paraliturgical art, we might not aim at something that can “promote prayer, […] simply present Scriptural truth, (and) […] delight the eye, like Matisse, with the “dance” of the Sacred message” all at once?

    • Rev. Deacon Paul O. Iacono on February 10, 2015 at 5:18 pm

      Fr. Moody,
      Thank you for your reply.
      Yes, I agree, we must strive to project our love for Christ and His Church, and Christ’s joyful love for us, through our art.
      As you know, evangelization of the Word of God should not and does not have to be boring. Yet, this is where we step out onto thin ice – where sacred artists in their zeal – can go too far, and, in a fit of excess, blur Truth and Tradition.
      In my opinion, neither Vozarevics, Nymphios, or Kordis are excessive, nor, do they blur Truth and Tradition in their paraliturgical art.
      I must admit, however, I do not understand what Bogdanavic is trying to say. Thus, where is the simplicity of message? Where is the simplicity of Truth and Tradition?
      Thankfully, God in HIs mercy, knows that we, and our art, are a work in progress!
      May the grace of Our Lord Jesus Christ be with you.

  5. John Simmons on February 11, 2015 at 1:26 pm

    The essence of early cubism was an attempt to paint in four dimensions, simple planes are used as it is to hard to conceptualize with anything more complex. See Jean Gebser as to why interiority, time-freedom and higher dimensions were considered the escape ladder away from the dead anthropocentrism of Renaissance perspective painting (with the viewer outside in a frozen moment, and eternity unreachable over the vanishing point). Art is an epistemology on Canvas, and Iconography with its reverse perspective, is the ultimate good news. I would never dream of wanting to alter Icons, Hymnography or traditional chant, but I am also a modern poet, artist and musician, with a foot and a vision in both the traditional Orthodox worldview and the postmodern world. “Postmodern” art from an Orthodox Phronema is not about changing traditional Orthodox arts, but building bridges from one world to the other. I still have a collection of Orthodox punk ‘zines with the ‘zine aesthetic which built such a bridge with great effectiveness.

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